Wassily Kandinsky could hear colors. Maybe you can too, but since studies so far have suggested that the underlying condition exists in less than five percent of the population, the odds are against it. Known as synesthesia, it involves one kind of sense perception being tied up with another: letters and numbers come with colors, sequences take on three-dimensional forms, sounds have tactile feelings. These unusual sensory connections can presumably encourage unusual kinds of thinking; perhaps unsurprisingly, synesthetic experiences have been reported by a variety of creators, from Billy Joel and David Hockney to Vladimir Nabokov and Nikola Tesla.
Few, however, have described synesthesia as eloquently as Kandinsky did. “Color is the keyboard,” he once said. “The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.”
That quote must have shaped the mission of Play a Kandinsky, a collaboration between Google Arts and Culture and the Centre Pompidou. Enlisting the compositional services of experimental musicians Antoine Bertin and NSDOS, it gives even us non-synesthetes a chance to experience the intersection of sound and not just color but shape as well, in something of the same manner as the pioneering abstract painter must have.
As explained in the Listening In video above, Kandinsky heard yellow as a trumpet, red as a violin, and blue as an organ. An image of sufficient chromatic and formal variety must have set off a symphony in his head, much like the one Play a Kandinsky gives us a chance to conduct. As an interface it uses his 1925 painting Yellow-Red-Blue, each element of which, when clicked, adds another synesthetic layer of sound to the mix. These visual-sonic correspondences are based on Kandinsky’s own color theories as well as the music he would have heard, all processed with the formidable machine-learning resources at Google’s command. “What was he trying to make us feel with this painting?” Play a Kandinsky asks. But of course he didn’t have just one set of emotions in mind for his viewers, and making that possible was perhaps the most enduring achievement of his journey into abstraction.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.